In 1994 a group of six Belgian families boarded a plane from Brussels to Beijing, all with the same intention: to adopt a baby girl. Aged between 6 months and 3 years old, the girls in question were from the same orphanage in the city of Yueyang. Among them was 8-month-old Youqine Lefevre. Among the adults was her soon-to-be father, with whom Youqine would leave China on that trip. Together they headed for a new life, as a new family, in a country far away from her roots.
Now 27 years old and a photographer based in Belgium, Lefevre has been using her craft to retrace her personal history in her expansive photo project The Land of Promises. Growing up, her understanding of her early life was fractured and she came of age wanting answers. In 2017, after buying a ticket back to the Chinese province in which she was born, she spent three weeks familiarising herself with the place and its people. In 2019 she returned and, this time, travelled across the country, visiting Beijing, Suzhou, the Yunnan province and Nanjing, meeting people and making portraits. Over time, the series turned into an odyssey that not only explores her own adoption but also meets others with stories just like hers.
Lefevre was born in 1993 in China’s Hunan province. “According to the official documents I have, I stayed with my biological family for a month before they left me in a city called Yueyang,” Lefevre explains. “A resident found me and dropped me off at the police station. The authorities handed me over to the orphanage and reportedly searched for my parents for four months.” Eventually, she says, the search was called off and she was put up for adoption soon after.
Lefevre is one of around 100,000 children who were adopted by Western families during the 1990s as a direct result of China’s uncompromising one-child policy. The policy was implemented in 1979 to prevent overpopulation but, Lefevre says, “it was also to allow China to become one of the most powerful countries in the world economically.” Of the large number of adoptions, most of the abandoned children were girls – a sad circumstance born from the fact that when pressed to choose, families wanted boys. When girls were born, they were often given up for adoption or, in other cases, they were kept but their births never declared or made official. Many of those children – of whom there are presumed to be millions – remain undocumented to this day. To add to this, in China it is illegal to find out the gender of your baby before birth but families would often find ways to discover the sex, meaning selective abortions were rife.
The photographs in The Land of Promises are gorgeous and sensitive depictions of a difficult subject. When Lefevre began making them, her relationship with China was only just starting to evolve. “Before that, for a very long time, I didn't like to talk about my adoption and I refused to go back to China,” she recalls. “I grew up surrounded by white people, and I had a rather colour-blind education in that my family pretended not to see our race difference, which did not help me defend myself against racist microaggressions. It was complicated to talk about it with the people around me since they were not experiencing the same thing and therefore did not understand.” Like all children, Lefevre didn’t want to be seen as different, but that was out of her control.
Many of the people in Lefevre’s images are contacts she made before her trip in 2019 through The Mother’s Bridge of Love, a charity dedicated to reaching out and enriching the lives of Chinese children in all corners of the world – those adopted by Western families, those raised abroad and those living in China. Every person we see in the pictures has a related story – some are adopted, others undocumented. Many more had their chance of a family stripped away. In one image, Lefevre introduces us to a grandfather carrying his grandchild in a basket on his back. Bonded by blood and separated by generations, they are part of a phenomenon known in China as ‘the children left behind’. “Their parents go to town to work and only come back once a year so it’s their grandparents who take care of them,” Lefevre explains. “This is why in the countryside we mainly meet elderly people and children.”
In another picture we see Qian, a young woman with a solemn face and dark hair. “Like many people in China,” Lefevre says, “Qian met her husband through friends and her parents pressured her to get married as soon as possible.” Qian remembers the anxiety of hoping for a boy – no doubt fuelled by everyone around her – and the relief when she gave birth to a son. Qian and her husband are progressive, though, and they want their son to make his own choices in life. Many other stories in the project remain anonymous to protect the identities of those involved.
Over the years, the Chinese government gradually relaxed the one child policy – first by allowing those outside of cities to have two children if their first was a girl. It ended officially in 2015. After that, all families were allowed to have two children and as of 2021 that number has increased to three. Unofficially, however, the story is very different and the effects of the policy are felt in devastating ways. “It affected the whole population,” Lefevre says earnestly, “and many of the consequences still persist.” This includes the rapidly accelerated ageing of the Chinese population and a loss of workforce, as well as a sharp drop in birth rates and a female deficit, because there are now millions more men than women. Lefevre adds that in addition to the cultural preference for sons and patriarchy, the lasting effects have hit women and girls in more visceral ways too. “It’s accentuated discrimination against girls and women,” she says and lists selective abortions, abandonment, infanticide and neglect as just some of the things girls have suffered through because of it.
For Lefevre, what lingers most is a sense of anger and she wants viewers to understand the human consequences of systems like the one she was put through. “Today I feel angry with international and transracial adoption in general because my thinking is more political,” she says. “Families from the global North have access to children from the global South and not the other way around. Adoption is a prejudice against the adoptee, who, in this system, is the object of transaction. Those who benefit from this system are Western countries, adoption agencies, adopting families, source countries and to a lesser extent (and sometimes not at all), biological families. For me, adoption is not a chance and the adoptee does not have to be grateful, even though that’s what people have often wanted me to believe.”
In the end, The Land of Promises explores a personal story of adoption and integration while speaking to the difficulties of learning self-worth as a girl who was abandoned for her gender. Each of the pictures in this project is a powerful reminder that every choice that was made, every child that was given up, every life that was lost, contributed towards the silent legacy of emotional damage inflicted upon young girls who were cast aside.